S.F. money buys controversial ads in Israel

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A $360,000 grant from San Francisco's Goldman family has turned out to be one of the most controversial donations the philanthropists have ever made.

The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund grant paid for a series of posters and radio commercials urging secular Israelis to sample worship at a Reform or Conservative synagogue during the High Holy Days.

The reaction to the ads was swift. Ultra-religious Jews tore down the posters and tried to get the Israeli government to keep the commercials off the airwaves.

Those actions had little effect in the end except to draw more attention to the Reform and Conservative movements.

"Synagogues were at full capacity," Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Israel Reform Action Center, said last week in a phone interview from Jerusalem.

"I've spoken to five officials throughout Israel, and all of them are bombarded, in some places beyond endurance, by people who want to find further information about the movement."

Goldman, a San Francisco insurance magnate and former president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, was especially pleased with the attention the ads gleaned. He said he believes the Reform and Conservative movements are now in a position to hold their own against the Orthodox in Israel.

"I think we set the stage for more activity," Goldman said. "Someone has to bite the bullet and make a move…Once in a while our conscience tells us to move."

However, a spokesman for an American Orthodox umbrella group downplayed both the immediate success and the lasting impact of the ads.

"The test will not be whether a few hundred more people show up for Kol Nidre or Ne'ilah services on Yom Kippur but whether they succeed in changing people's lives in deep and meaningful ways," Jonathan Rosenblum of Am Echad said this week in a phone interview from Jerusalem.

"My guess is that the lasting impact on this campaign is going to be minimal, a number in the hundreds," he added. "What we're talking about here after the dust has blown away is something quite infinitesimal."

The controversy started in late August when the ads were supposed to start running on Israel Radio. The advertisements — part of the Reform and Conservative movements' first joint advertising campaign — introduced rabbis and invited Israelis to visit egalitarian synagogues for the High Holy Days.

They also stated, "There's more than one way to be Jewish."

But that message apparently rocked the boat a bit too much. In Israel, Orthodox Jews control all Jewish rites, from conversions to marriages to funerals. According to the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Orthodox Jews believe there is only one way to be Jewish and, thus, the ads were too "ideologically controversial." The broadcasting authority refused to run them.

In early September, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned Israel's Supreme Court in order to run the ads. Sept. 5, a compromise was reached between the broadcasting authority and the movements. The deal included a slight change in the radio advertisements. The main message became: "This is our way. You only have to choose."

After the compromise was reached, however, a number of the posters were ripped down or defaced.

Goldman said he gave the money without knowing what the ads would state. "I had no idea what the reaction would be," he said.

Upset that "the Orthodox want Conservative and Reform Judaism to disappear," Goldman said the grants were intended to give the two movements good publicity. "We didn't know how they'd do it. That's their business."

The ads were purposefully not provocative, said Bonnie Boxer, the Goldman Fund's representative in Israel. "Controversy was the opposite of what we were after."

But controversy came in full force.

"I wouldn't say [the campaign] backfired," she said. "You have to get people's attention. The controversy adds spice. And though we didn't seek it, we knew it was inevitable. I don't think there is any way to engage this issue without controversy."

Organizing such a campaign was new for the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.

"This was the first time the movements together created so much visibility," said Sharon Geffen, chair of communications for Masorti, the Conservative movement in Israel.

"We could have done a campaign that was more controversial. But we did this with a tremendous amount of consensus."

Boxer said Reform leaders in Israel were particularly showering praise upon the Goldman Fund for being the first philanthropy to aid the public awareness campaign.

"This a family that has stood by Reform Judaism for a long time," she said. "I give them a lot of credit for being willing to make such a bold grant."

Both religious streams assert that the purpose of the campaign was not to rack up new members but simply to inform Israelis about what Reform and Conservative Judaism stands for.

The ads were also intended to give the two movements a public relations overhaul, after suffering blows from some Orthodox rabbis who have repeatedly ridiculed the movements in public.

"The real purpose of the ads was to lower the level of antagonism to liberal Judaism," Boxer said. "People don't really know these are serious and sincere religious movements. They only know them in the context of controversy; they know nothing about the content of these groups.

The Reform and Conservative ads will continue to run through Shavuot.

Regev wasn't sure whether the first round of ads had the direct effect of prodding people to visit non-Orthodox congregations over the High Holy Days. But he was sure the ads made Israelis think seriously about an alternative to Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox, Regev added, are listening closer too.

"This is seen as a breaking point. We may see an escalation of the religious wars on radio and TV."

Sure enough, "some people in the Orthodox community are asking themselves whether they should be doing a counter-campaign," Rosenblum said.

A potential campaign might focus on the Reform and Conservative movements in America, of which, he said, most Israelis know very little. For example, he said, Israelis could be turned off if they knew that some Reform rabbis in America perform same-sex weddings.